When Guy Clark discusses the art and craft of songwriting, people listen. He has, after all, been writing songs of uncommon quality for nearly four decades, songs like “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” “The Randall Knife,” and “Texas, 1947.”
Some of them have been snatched up and recorded by other distinctive artists, many of whom are no slouches in the songwriting department themselves (“She’s Crazy For Leaving” written by Clark and Rodney Crowell, “New Cut Road” by Bobby Bare, “Let Him Roll” by Johnny Cash and “Heartbroke” by Ricky Skaggs, to name just a few), while others have filled out the twelve studio albums bearing Clark’s name, beginning with his 1975 debut, Old No. 1. He’s just added a thirteenth entry to his enduring body of work, Somedays The Song Writes You.
During the title track, Clark—a native of Monahans, Texas and longtime resident of Nashville—offers an explanation, both cryptic and matter-of-fact, of how all of this has come to be. It’s a spare song that glides gracefully on a slight Latin breeze, and he wrote it with Jon Randall and Gary Nicholson. But most striking is Clark’s humility in the face of a process of which people the world over consider him a master: “The words have a way of their own.” That is to say, a song can’t be forced or corralled. Its arrival is, quite simply, a mystery.
“I sometimes think it might be a little too cliché,” Clark muses about the song. “But the thing is, it’s the truth.”
It’s also the creed by which he lives and writes: “That magic part of it is really hard to put your finger on. That’s what I’m always striving for. Which is why whenever you have an idea, or whenever I have any little flash of inspiration, I try to write it down immediately, because I will forget it.”
Two other songs in Clark’s new collection further flesh out the image of a soul seized by inspiration. “The Guitar,” written with longtime collaborator Verlon Thompson, and then forgotten for a good long while, received a second life as a talking-blues ballad.
“We were teaching a songwriting class,” Clark explains. “The day we finished it, I just put it in a folder and never looked at it again. And someone had emailed it to Verlon a few months ago and asked what the melody was. It had never even occurred to us. And all of a sudden here was a pretty good song that we were just sitting on for four years.”
It’s a song about a young man finding his musical destiny in an old pawnshop guitar. The guitar chooses him, an idea that carries particular weight coming from someone who labors hour upon hour in his workshop, handcrafting his own guitars, as Clark does.
“Hemingway’s Whiskey” is a knowing sigh of a song, written with Ray Stephenson and Joe Leathers. Following the famed novelist’s example, it’s a testament to taking life—liquor, too, for that matter—in its most potent, undiluted form, regardless of where such an encounter may lead.
Of course, when it comes to Clark’s ideas on songwriting, this trio of new songs isn’t the whole story, and he’s one to see a story through until he’s satisfied it’s complete. Somedays The Song Writes You is a companion piece, of sorts, to his last album, Workbench Songs, which brought to mind the aspect of songwriting he does fully control—the art.
Like Workbench Songs and The Dark before it, Clark did all his writing for Somedays The Song Writes You with others, many of them old friends, including Rodney Crowell and Shawn Camp.
But it’s hard to miss three new names, since they pop up on half the songs on the album: Patrick Davis, Jedd Hughes and Ashley Monroe. All three have one thing in common: they’re young. By writing with them Clark is bridging generations, mingling his ideas and experience with theirs.
Clark talks about his recent embrace of youthful songwriting partners, “I used to write exclusively by myself. I really enjoy writing with other people. One, I learn a lot musically. Like Jedd is a fantastic guitar player. He comes from a whole other place and comes up with stuff that I would never think of doing or exploring. And I really enjoy that part of it.”
And the feeling is clearly mutual.
“It’s like going to school…it’s always a lesson,” Hughes shares. “I feel like I write different songs with him than I would with anybody else. There’s something that happens when you get in the room with him. You start thinking about what you’re saying a lot more.”
The only song on the album that Clark didn’t write is one by his late best friend, Townes Van Zandt. It’s become tradition for Clark to include a Van Zandt composition on each album he records. Interpreting “If I Needed You” is especially meaningful, since he and his wife Susanna were almost certainly the first to hear it, in their own home. “That particular song, Townes was living with Susanna and I. He woke up one morning and played this song and he said he had dreamed it.”
The eleven blues-shaded, wisdom-filled songs on Somedays The Song Writes You were given a light, loose acoustic treatment by what may well be the most tasteful string band on earth: besides Clark’s lean guitar playing, there’s Camp on fiddle and mandolin, Bryn Davies on bass and cello, Thompson’s intuitive leads and Kenny Malone’s gentle pulse on drums.
Clark and his trusted co-producers, Thompson and Chris Latham, care nothing for studio sheen. They aim simply to capture Clark’s songs at moments that ring true. And, as anyone who hears their latest efforts will find, they achieve it.
Of his preferred way of committing songs to tape, Clark says, “They’re not worked to death. And the other thing is they’re not pieced together. In other words, one of the criteria is that I sing them and play them all the way through. And if I don’t get that, then I do it again.”
The vocal performances on the album are some of the most natural and relaxed of Clark’s career. “Hopefully I get better,” he offers. “I’m mostly learning what to leave out. With guitar players, it’s not what they play, it’s the holes they leave.”
A well-placed hole is a marvelous thing. Clark is that rare breed of writer who puts himself willfully, directly in inspiration’s path, and whose expert hand illuminates, never flattens, the mystery.
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